The Call of the Open Road

David Thomson's dispatch is nicely timed with summer on the horizon and the beckoning of the open road. A road trip around California sounds pretty great right now.


California’s roads are the dreamy stuff of car commercials—which is to say that the scenery is so spectacular, it’s worthy of national aspiration. In his latest Alta article, David Thomson takes us on a Golden State road trip peppered with recollections of books, films, and art that have inspired his wanderlust. Taking cues from Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, Terrence Malick’s Badlands, and even a painting by David Hockney, Thomson meanders through his memories of road trips past. His dispatch is nicely timed with summer on the horizon and the beckoning of the open road. I confess that a road trip around California sounds pretty great right now.

The first thing I’d pack would be Obi Kaufmann’s California Field Atlas. His illustrated glove box–size guide to the state’s wildernesses and wildlife seems designed for just such a journey. A soundtrack of Fantastic Negrito, X, and the Eagles would dominate my iTunes, although Didion’s main character, Maria Wyeth, was probably more of a tape deck kind of gal.

Stops on my list would include a nostalgic visit to Sea Ranch, still an annual pilgrimage for our family reunions. From there, I’d cross the state to drink in the wonder and adventure of Yosemite. But it’s the cutting across the state that’s the fun part, right? Beef jerky and diet soda at off-brand gas stations paired with perfect produce from roadside stands: it’s a classic road trip pairing. If I were Gustavo Arellano, I’d ignore the In-N-Out Burgers and find the locals’ favorite taco spots instead. A detour to Lake County might be worthwhile just for the inmate radio, and while I’m at it, why not pop into the National Big House Prison Museum in Folsom?

Eyes peeled for Central Valley bee thieves, I’d then head south to Los Angeles and gleefully re-create the TMZ Celebrity Tour. I might even stay up late and explore the city’s booming subculture nightlife. I’m more laid-back on my road trip, apparently, more willing to take risks and appreciate the ridiculous. I’d end my journey with a movie star–style drive along the famed Pacific Coast Highway, the one featured in all those car commercials, and make my way across the border to Baja, where the food tastes like sunsets and old men would ask me to dance in city squares. Hey, it could happen. The lure of the road trip is possibility.

Where would your California road trip lead you? What have I missed and where must I visit? Email and point me in the right direction. Until then, I’ll be cruising down the 5 with a sun-kissed left arm hanging out the driver’s-side window, scanning the motels for a quirky diner and a Vacancy sign.•

This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.

Beth Spotswood is Alta's digital editor, events manager, and a contributing writer.
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